Portrait of the Young Child as Researcher
By Jon'a F. Meyer
As all children, I have always relied heavily on research methods in my life. Even as young child, I participated in and mastered many techniques and theories of inquiry. This brief essay describes some of my experiences in the wonderful world of research.
My parents played a strong role in my development as a researcher. As a toddler, for example, I remember Mother baking holiday cookies. The delightfully sweet scent filled the kitchen and spilled over into the playroom in which I played. I was immediately drawn to the kitchen for a closer observation of the baking process (qualitative research is sometimes preferable to more quantitative approaches, especially when the concept under study defies quantification). I quickly discerned that the aroma emanated from the big white box in the corner with the window on the front door, and proceeded to conduct more thorough research when Mother yelled "HOT!" and slapped my hand as it moved toward the oven. As soon as she looked away, however, I firmly planted my hand on the glass window and shrieked in pain. I immediately recognized that we had inter-rater reliability, that is we both agreed that the oven was hot. There was no question in my mind about the validity of her initial assessment; my burnt fingertips were proof of that.
Later that day, Father came home and initiated his favorite game, “Whasinabox.” Whasinabox was designed to develop deductive reasoning skills. He would wrap objects in brightly colored paper, sometimes enclosing them in boxes before applying the paper. The idea of the game was to ascertain the contents without first opening the package. He would often deliberately camouflage the contents to make it more difficult to determine what was in the box. We played this game every winter; he would go so far as putting the game pieces under an elaborately decorated tree to intensify the experience. I quickly learned a plethora of deductive skills, such as squeezing and shaking the packages to help me figure out what they contained. Clothing, for example, didn't make rattling noises like many toys or board games did. I also learned from what was included in other boxes of the same general shape and size. My sister, on the other hand, preferred a more inductive approach. She would carefully cut the paper, look inside, and then re-tape the paper so that it looked as pristine as when Father put it under the tree. When it came time to announce what we hypothesized was inside the package, she would always make accurate "predictions." When Father discovered her techniques, however, he angrily accused her of ex post facto hypothesizing, that is coming up with one's hypothesis after a thorough examination of one's data (the contents of the package in this case). That her "prediction" was correct did not mitigate the fact that she hadn't played the game properly by using her deductive skills and facts available outside the package in formulating her hypothesis.
The winter ceremony was also a good way to learn a bit about sampling. Father would allow us to select which one of the many boxes under the tree we would open on Christmas Eve. This was an important decision because all of the other boxes had to wait until Christmas day. I usually engaged in simple random sampling. I would arrange the boxes on the floor then use a table of random numbers to decide which I would open first. I thought this method was the best because each box had an equal chance of being selected. My sister, on the other hand, preferred to use a non-random sampling technique, purposive sampling. She always selected the largest box under the tree because it met her single criterion: big in size. To frustrate her, Father sometimes put a single piece of candy in the largest box, so that my selection method more often yielded a good sample. I told my sister if she would randomly select a box like I did, the contents of it would be more representative of the other boxes, but she insisted on her haphazard method.
Another fond research memory centered on the value of operationalization in research. I learned through experience that my parents' opinions of things often differed vastly from my own, that is that we operationalized concepts differently. Father's ideas of what constituted good ways to spend family time, for example, never included rolling in the grass and playing in the mud. Instead, he preferred more mundane activities, including attending church and long family "discussions" around the dinner table. Whenever Father would tell us how much we children would enjoy something, my instant reply would always be "and just how do you operationalize that concept, Father?" If I was lucky, I received an answer rather than a firm swat on the behind (and ironically, he always told me that the swats hurt him more than they did me leading me to wonder how he operationalized pain!).
My sister and I often engaged in rigorous hypothesis testing. We would take commonly accepted statements and attempt to test them through empirical research. One of these statements was that eating candy would make your teeth rot out. I told Mother how important it was to do research on the topic, and asked her to buy us several cases of candy; I and my sister would volunteer as subjects in this groundbreaking study. She resisted, stating that research by others had firmly established a relationship between eating candy and tooth decay. My sister and I lamented that the external validity had not been confirmed; what if the results did not apply to other samples, areas, settings, and times? To address this possibility, we needed to conduct additional replications of the experiment in a variety of settings and with a variety of research subjects. By refusing to allow us to conduct this study, she was engaging in premature closure of inquiry. She would not yield, however, so I went to a backup funding source, Grandmother. Grandmother was much more agreeable and agreed to provide us with the required materials so that the valuable research could take place.